Monday, 17 October 2016

Could we get rid of local government?

I’m one of the editors of Local Government Studies journal. In a widely read and cited piece, Peter John in 2014(£) highlighted how English local government has remained resilient in the face of successive waves of reform. Looking at the issue from a Scottish perspective, there seems to be recently a lot of changes in the air that have led me to spend the weekend thinking about the question posed in the title of this post: could we get rid of local government?

As someone with a background in history, this question seems fair to ask – in the grand scheme of things, British local government is fairly new – the 1833 Burgh Corporations Act and 1835 Municipal Corporations Act set up the institutions that, eventually, became the local authorities we know and love/hate today. To remove an institution that is nearly 200 years old is not beyond imagination. I’m led to believe that the only statutory duties a local authority has to fulfil are to have a Chief Executive, Chief Social Worker and Chief Planner; all other duties can be fulfilled how the local authority wishes, from delegated authority from those individuals.

The easiest way to do it would be to do what seems to be happening in England: make local authorities contract out all their services, and cut their budgets so much that they eventually go bankrupt; stories like this are becoming regular.

In Scotland, something different seems to be happening. I thought I’d go through the key services in turn to play with my thought experiment.

Education: the SNP government went into the 2016 elections with a pledge to manage schools on a regional basis. Further, at their recent conference, a fudge was agreed that instead of removing charitable status from private schools, state schools would have it extended to them. In this excellent post, James McEnaney pulls apart what this would actually mean – separate charitable trusts receiving funding to runs schools. Just like academies in England, it would be very easy for this funding to come direct from the Scottish Government. Schools could then set their own admissions criteria, within national guidelines and a nation tribunal service could replace local council’s role in placing requests.

Children’s social work: all you would need to do is make those schools become “Children and Families Trusts”. The Head Teacher as the named person would coordinate social work services for vulnerable children. No need for local authorities to employ social workers. If the much-trailed review of the child care system finds that councils are failing, and parents are given vouchers to access childcare from other providers, then local authorities will have yet more services taken away from them.

Adult social care: the new Integrated Health and Social Care boards are moving adult social care away from direct council control anyway, to a shared, partnership form of governance. This piece by ITV news flags that the Scottish Government “is also looking at the number of health boards in Scotland and how they relate to local councils”. If the Scottish Government create 32 Health Boards to shadow the local councils, I’ll be gob-smacked. Cynically, I cannot help but think the tide might be in the other direction. If adult social care was given to Health Boards, then councils would lose another service. Probation services could be delivered by an extended Scottish Prisons Service.

Town planning: local authorities have three jobs in planning: write plans; decide on planning applications; and enforcement. Successive waves of reform to the planning system since 2006 have focused on increasing efficiency around making planning decisions. Feasibly, and by stealth, I could see Scotland moving towards a far less regulatory system. Basically, the Scottish Government, along with Historic Environment Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, would designate protected areas and create policies that dictate the quality of development and where development cannot take place for environmental or safety reasons. They would also have the National Planning Framework guiding major developments. You would then have deemed planning consent unless one of these policies applied. A version of the Community Infrastructure Levy would be payable to make up for minor environmental damage done and provide infrastructure. If a housebuilder then built a load of homes near no schools, poor roads, and no health services, then the market would be left to decide whether the development would be successful. Such a tick-box exercise could easily be run by a government Executive Agency with the Environmental Appeals body being there as a safeguard. If you look in detail at the hierarchy of planning in Scotland, we are not that far from this situation now. And local councils would lose another service.

Waste collection and street sweeping: in this age of community empowerment, I could easily foresee us being expected to clean the streets ourselves. In Germany you’re expected to sweep the pavement outside your house. Many new private housing estates in Scotland are privately factored, rather than relying on local council services. An expansion of this type of contracting, or the development of Housing Improvement Districts, akin to Business Improvement Districts, would provide a way to deliver services where owners do not sweep their own streets, or where they cannot agree on a factor. Participatory budgeting would also make this a lot easier. Business Improvement Districts could just take on more responsibilities to take over local council functions.

Waste collection could easily be managed on regional contracts, delivered by the Scottish Government. Many local authorities are now in regional partnerships anyway.

Roads and street lighting maintenance: local roads could easily be managed by Housing and Business Improvement Districts, or Community Councils managing budgets. Larger strategic roads could be included in the larger trunk road contracts Transport Scotland deliver.
Housing: of the local councils left that have their own housing stock, a few bad annual charter reports from the Scottish Housing Regulator, and just as with poorly performing housing associations and coops, then pressure could be put on councils to give their stock to larger housing associations to manage.

Parks, leisure, museums, galleries and libraries: Glasgow Council provides the model here, where Glasgow Life owns and manages these on behalf of the local council. Remove the board of councillors with a board of the local great-and-good, then individual trusts could then bid for funding from Creative Scotland, or come up with entrepreneurial ways to generate income locally, or cross-subsidise from services that may be able to be run at a profit (leisure centres) to those that cannot.

And hey-presto, your local council will not have any services to run anymore. It will be a shell of elected members with incredibly limited taxation powers, and employing very few staff directly. Part of this could be down to the longer-term centralisation of powers in the UK and Scotland, written about widely in academic circles. The erosion of local democracy in Scotland due to the reorganisation of local government in 1995 does not help here as well, with very little link between over-worked councillors and their electors. It also seems to be a trend picked up on by Alan Cochrane in his recent revisit of local government in England – that the spatiality of the local government is changing. He highlights that in England this is the “local” – so local government is being eroded by centralisation on the one hand, and the “devolution” of powers to “the local” through things like neighbourhood planning.

Back in 2007 the Scottish Government and COSLA celebrated their “concordat” and a new relationship between local government and the Scottish Government based on mutual respect. Almost a decade later, and it looks like this is being replaced by the same “hollowing-out” of local government as seen in England. Local authorities are portrayed as a wasteful middle – communities should be empowered to deliver their own services, using their own budgets, and we can achieve national outcomes, national consistency, and efficiencies by delivering other services at a national level. You could take the view that this is fine – local councils have had their day. I have to be more critical. Local councils are elected. Representative democracy is not ideal, but it’s the best system we have for managing conflicting interests between groups and areas. My real fear from an “empowered Scotland” emerging from the end of local councils would be that all communities would be equally empowered, but some communities would be more empowered than others.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Lady training


The Athena SWAN truck rolls-on. Along with colleagues, I'm co-leading our Faculty application for a Silver Award that is due to be submitted next April. If we are awarded it, we might be the first social science department to have such an award, which we will be very proud of, but will also be in the fullest knowledge that there will still be a lot of work to do to make my Faculty a more inclusive place.

Anyway, why the title - well, a criticism I have heard of Athena SWAN action plans has been that they use Aurora Leadership Training as a solution to everything. Most Athena SWAN gender audits correctly identify stuff we already know, but put concrete numbers on it: women are under-represented at higher grades in universities, are much less likely to apply for promotion and are also less likely to get it when they do apply.

The logic of leadership training as an action is that, firstly, the role descriptors for academics at Senior Lecturer and Professorial level include lots of leadership stuff - you have to have demonstrated you have done this to get the promotion. Secondly, the training is also predicated on improving the assertiveness of women in actually doing things like going for promotion in the first place. This is all very laudable, and I am sure evidence exists that it makes a difference.

Yet it troubles me. I apply my policy analysis brain to it, specifically work on problem definition and causal stories, and note that this presents women themselves as the problem in their own advancement. If women were more like men in their leadership and assertiveness, then they would do better within patriarchal bureaucracies. The only "solution" applied to men is often unconscious bias training. But, as a colleague pointed out, it's great knowing you've got unconscious bias, but it's very difficult to do much about it.

This got me thinking as to what else you might do, more systematically and structurally, to tackle such problems: blinding advancement and promotions processes, for example. The fact many women are sent on the Aurora training also led me to consider whether I needed leadership training - I've suddenly found myself, as a mid-career-academic (gulp) with a lot of leadership roles, including around equality and diversity. I noted that the Leadership Foundation in Higher Education do such a course - Transition to Leadership.**

The logic I've now followed is that maybe this is a bit of the answer: we need inclusive leadership. having an interest in issues of gender rights in higher education I have specifically trained myself and changed my behaviour in the following small ways:

  • I make sure I am not the first person to ask a question in a Q&A session and will wait a long time before doing so to provide more space to women (I also sometimes keep a gender count of the questionners on Twitter);
  • I put my hand up to ask to speak in meetings;
  • I try to not speak over people, or raise my voice or be too assertive;
  • I call-out Mrs Triggs moments when I see them, and call myself out on it when I do it;
  • I have refused to speak on an all-male panels;
  • I've become very active in Athena SWAN processes and encourage other men to do the same as feminist allies.
This has not come naturally. I've been brought-up a man with the confidence that this is my world. I have all this in-built behaviour that was given to me by patriarchal society and conditioning. I know I'm not perfect in my behaviour either, but I do my best. I'd hope as I develop as a leader then the sorts of inclusive practices I do would grow in number. 

The sort of behaviour change I'm describing here could be delivered through wider leadership training - perhaps the Transition to Leadership course does do this; it's not clear from the website. In sum, it seems an inclusive leadership training course for men would actually place the responsibility for sorting out the problem where it lies - on men who recreate the structures of patriarchy in their everyday actions. This seems a much better way of delivering the outcomes we want than blaming women from the structural inequalities they face. 

*or at least it's trying to be,
** this was after a bit of internal "oh isn't it so awful to to be a man" grumbling about the fact I couldn't access the Aurora programme.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Is the Scottish Government suffering from a severe case of initiativitis?

“We must do something now!” the cry of many a politician. There’s a famous scene in The Thick of It where the Minister is on their way to a press conference and due to unfolding events they have to announce a policy to “do something”. The Minister’s car drives round a roundabout repeatedly while the Minister and her advisors come up with something suitable. Has this approach to policy-making cursed the Scottish Government?

Back in the day, the old Scottish Executives between 1999-2007 were criticised by the opposition and external critics for having a severe case of initiativitis. Because of the limited powers of the devolution settlement, a fairly easy way for the Executive to be seen to be doing something was to ring-fence a small pot of money and send it the way of the problem or group demanding attention. We can interpret this using bog-standard, Dahl-esque, pluralism – various interests would coalesce around Ministers and the resources would be dished-out accordingly.

The way the Scottish Executive’s budget grew during the period helped this along. Because UK departments that had been devolved were getting the lions-share*of the increases in public expenditure between 1999 and 2008, the devolved budgets grew at a faster rate than the equivalent entire budget of the UK Government. This meant, once extra allocations to health and education to match Westminster had been dished out, the extra could be spent on the pet initiatives. My own area of doctoral research – the Community Regeneration Fund (CRF) (and its precursor the Better Neighbourhood Services Fund) – were classic examples of this. Labour MSPs felt pressure from constituents living in deprived neighbourhoods to “do something” about the problems in the neighbourhoods, so set aside an impressive-sounding £354 million to be spent over three years. Alas, that was actually just a third of one per cent of the Scottish Executive’s annual budget of over £30 billion, so it didn’t amount to much at all.

As my colleague Paul Cairney highlights, the reason for the SNP’s electoral success, especially in 2011, was they were seen as very competent in government. One of the earliest policy decisions (that made my doctoral research rather interesting as I was in the field as it happened) was to roll-back many of the initiatives of the previous Scottish Executive (including the CRF). Sectors of the public services were given un-ringfenced budgets in return for meeting certain outcomes and also output targets (1,000 extra police officers, class sizes, free schools meals etc.). This enabled the Scottish Government to take credit for when things went well, and “devolve” blame when things went wrong – a cunning example of the difficulties of accountability in complex governance.

This strategy has generally worked very well. Until recently, it seems. Scotland is suffering substantial reductions in public expenditure like the rest of the UK. As in England, these are being made even worse by the increases in expenditure on the health, leaving other services increasingly stretched. Of course, demographic challenges mean health needs more than the increases it is getting anyway. These problems need sorting. But the Scottish Government no longer has the ever-increasing pot of money from Westminster coming its way. So we see the return of initiatives, some big ones like the Scottish Attainment Challenge Fund (£750 million over five years; approx. 0.005 per cent of the Scottish Government DEL over the period – based on £30 billion p.a. DEL)  and also small, odd ones that could have been delivered by reconfiguring existing services: £4.2 million for a mental health intervention; £2 million on participatory budgeting (the oxymoron being here that PB should negate the need for initiative funding); £200,000 to help get disabled people into politics – a laudable aim, but the right way to achieve it?; £70,000 for a violence reduction project at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. And these are mainly just the ones that have been announced since 1 July. This doesn’t include all the agreements signed, and new strategies launched on rather small matters.

What drew my attention to this issue, and why I write this post, is today’s announcement of the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. I was initially intrigued by the name – it seemed very odd to name a policy in such a way. I joked on Twitter that we might now expect “Theresa May’s Mathematics Fun Day”. Slightly more seriously, the Literacy Hour in English schools, launched in 1997, was not known as Tony Blair’s Literary Hour probably because, as a friend suggested, it “sounds like some kind of dystopian nightmare”.

Education is currently a weak spot for the Scottish Government. Educational attainment across Scotland is slipping on most international measures. The gap between attainment at schools in the most deprived and least deprived neighbourhoods is growing in Scotland, yet it is falling in England. Arguably this matters in Scotland because of national pride – the reason Scotland is listed separately in OECD education league tables is because of the different educational system, but also because Scotland used to outperform England by some margin. So Something Must Be Done.

And the Reading Challenge has all the hallmarks of something. Pause now and have a look at the Scottish Book Trust’s web page for it. It seems the challenge was announced back in March by the First Minister. An advisory group was set up and has met twice in April and May this year (minutes available on the website). The April minutes make for interesting reading for two reasons – a minor reason was that the group seemed to want the initiative to be seen to be independent of government (making the name choice even odder). Secondly, the initiative seems to include a competition, even though the minutes state that “The Group recommended that if possible these elements of the Challenge be removed”.

The plot thickens, slightly, reading the BBC news coverage. It states:

“The Scottish government said its list of 100 books had been selected by a panel of academics, experts and teachers.

It includes Ms Sturgeon's favourite childhood book - Five On A Treasure Island - from Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.”

Whereas the Scottish Book Trust website suggests that the list is still under development. This really does look like policy for the sake of doing something, that has been implemented, even at a basic level, pretty poorly.

Now, you might say this doesn’t matter – we’re not talking about wasting billions of pounds of budget like the much more shocking case of the UK Government’s Troubled Families project. But it is still a waste of resources, and policy attention, towards something that will probably make no difference to the appalling under-performance of children from the poorest households in Scotland’s schools.

* apologies for the clich├ęs, I don’t know what’s come over me.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

What is housing studies for and what impact does it have?

This post is copyright and is not covered by the CC licence on the right.

My latest book review was of two books, and a bit more like a review essay, where I consider what the "impact" of research might be by considering two contrasting books. If your library has a subscription to Housing Studies, please be well behaved and download here. For the rest of you, enjoy:

What is housing studies for and what impact does it have?

Bastow, S., P. Dunleavy and J. Tinkler (2014). The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research Make a Difference. London, Sage.
Paperback £20.99
ISBN: 9781446275108

Collini, S. (2012). What are Universities For? London, Penguin. 
Paperback: £9.99
ISBN: 9781846144820

In a plenary speech to the 2014 European Network for Housing Research Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Professor Duncan Maclennan argued that housing research had to make itself more relevant and engage with policy-makers. This is a well-rehearsed argument across academia (see Nutley et al. 2007 for an excellent overview of this work in the policy studies literature). However these debates seem to be arising with increased regularity, urgency and emotion. This is due to diverse factors including the auditing of the wider “impact” of academic research through processes such as the Research Excellence Framework, the increased marketization of higher education, and the political pressure to demonstrate that taxpayer investment in higher education is worthwhile.

Academics have responded in quite different ways to these debates – some hunker down and fight back, arguing the changes reflect the imposition of global capitalism on a sphere of life where it is not welcome (Slater 2012). Others seek to work within the system as it changes and mould it to progressive ends, delivering change they want to see in the world (Pain et al, 2011). Others hark back to a “golden age” of the university – which in the UK context seems to be around 1970 (when many of these people were starting their academic careers) – and want to return to world of the Platonic expert guardian (Bastow et al, 2014, p. 27).

In this review, I discuss two books that engage in different ways with this debate, and consider the implications of these contributions for housing studies. Bastow et al and Collini provide us with evidence in different ways – from the social sciences and the humanities respectively. In chapter 3 of What Are Universities For?, Collini considers that many critics of the contemporary university justify their arguments using the essay The Idea of a University, written by John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman in 1852. As a historian, Collini masterfully handles the evidence and rhetoric to demonstrate why this is wrong: Cardinal Newman was making an argument for the development of a new university in Ireland, in a manner that would now be considered to reflect a colonialist agenda. As he shows in chapter 2, the university has always been a social institution. To attempt to argue that it should somehow sit above, or outside of the society which created it is to ignore the history of academia, from the founding of institutions as an extension of church and state in the medieval period, through to the growing utilitarianism of the university from the nineteenth century. Even in his day, Cardinal Newman’s views were anachronistic. Shortly after his essay was published, the UK Government began reforming Oxford and Cambridge universities in the 1870s so they were delivering the educated civil servants the British Empire required.

Bastow et al use the armoury of social science methods, well-established and new, to gather their evidence. The data analysed through the book includes a survey; semi-structured interviews with academics, business executives, policy-makers and voluntary sector workers; and non-invasive evidence collection from a vast range of websites and online databases. As Savage (2010) highlights, the growth and refinement of many of these methods was linked with the growth of the welfare state after 1945 and the demands of knowledge for policy-making. Therefore, to return to Collini’s argument, the development of social sciences in the university  is closely tied to what the state expects university’s to provide. However, citing Savage and Burrows (2007), Bastow et al also suggest that one of the greatest challenges to social science is the growth of privately held datasets being analysed by social scientists and other data professionals: what is the point in national population surveys when supermarket chains, Google and Facebook know so much about our populations? Thus, Bastow et al seek to demonstrate the economic and social value of the social sciences as practiced within British universities.

They structure their book in the way many studies of evidence-based policy-making are structured: first looking at the supply of social science; second, the demand for evidence; and third, the interface between the two. In the first section, they use non-invasive surveys of web resources of a sample of 270 social science and 100 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) academics to demonstrate the impact of academics in academia, policy-making and the media – the ‘supply’.

This evidence is variously interesting: academics in STEM subjects are much more likely to be one of multiple authors on papers and citations rates are higher; multiple authored papers in the social sciences are more likely to be cited; book chapters are less frequently cited than other publications; social scientists easily surpass their STEM colleagues in having an impact in policy-making; academics from STEM subjects are much more likely to have media appearances, in the model of the lone scientist. Pulling this evidence together into a set of regression models, the authors almost come up with a recipe for being an “impactful” scholar in the UK: you have to have a completed a PhD a long time ago at a Russell Group university; be a professor working in London; have published and been cited a lot; and be quite old. The model of academics as either ‘invisibles’, ‘applied researchers’, ‘publishers’, ‘communicators’, ‘influentials’ or part of the ’solid middle’ (p. 61) who do it all is particularly useful and should hearten managers and academics trying to be all things to all people.

The section on ‘demand‘ is also excellent, using interviews with academics and people from business, government and the voluntary sector. While this section demonstrates strong demand for evidence from government (the research must have been carried out while the UK Government were still commissioning social science research) and the voluntary sector. The business community was largely alien to social science evidence, a point I will return to below. In this research, the voluntary sector found social science most useful, and the story of housing organisations and housing researchers in the UK mirrors what is described here. These organisations described how they particularly valued the objectivity afforded by quoting academic evidence in policy-relevant discussions.
Overall, Bastow et al make a tub-thumping argument in favour of what they calculate to be the estimated £539 million annual investment in social science in the UK. According to their conservative economic modelling, contributes £4.8 billion to the economy in total. In framing their argument in this way, the authors very much use the language of managerialism – if the government wants to make the argument that social sciences are irrelevant and economically inefficient, then we shall determinedly show the very opposite, using social science techniques.

It is on this point that Collini and Bastow et al differ most. As already discussed, Collini dismisses nostalgic harking back to a glorious past of academe, with minimal government intrusion and audit, as unrealistic and ahistorical. However, he does not (as the reader might initially expect) accept that governments can have desired outcomes from higher education and then consider how the humanities might deliver these. Instead, he argues for a rejection of the terms of argument posed by successive governments as doing so: “involves, at least in part… employing categories and descriptions which we know, or ought to know, misrepresent the true purpose and value of much of what is done in universities“ (pp.94-5). The argument being made is that universities should solely be centres for advanced critical thought. That research outputs could be applied practically in society, or consideration could be given to how they might be applied, seems to sully Collini’s idea of what knowledge is. Given Collini’s historical account, I confess to finding his logic slightly baffling: if government has always told universities what they ought to do, if they are social institutions, surely universities should continue to adapt to contemporary contexts as they have done for nearly two millennia? Further, as Bastow et al suggest, the university no longer has its historic monopoly on advanced thought in an information-rich society.

To return to the challenge posed by Professor Maclennan – what do these books offer that might help us understand and ensure the impact of housing studies? The evidence marshalled by Bastow et al suggest that, to an extent, Collini is correct. The large-scale, or bigger picture theoretically-informed social science research done by many housing studies academics is useful. The quick impact of it cannot easily be quantified, but it adds to what Bastow et al call the ‘dynamic knowledge inventory’ (DKI)(chapter 9). This is increasingly online, mediated through a range of technologies, and accessible to a wide range of social science qualified intermediaries. Social scientists in universities – including housing studies researchers – must provide the highest quality evidence that is theoretically informed, and uses robust methods, to be a core of the DKI.
There is also a key role for academics to be in policy-making networks having impact with applied research – section 2 of Bastow et al reiterates the frustration of many outside academia that this does not happen enough. Readers from the UK may agree with this, but be disheartened. The current UK Government seems immune to even the most straightforward evidence-based criticism of their housing policies. Even evidence from housing economists on how to increase the supply of housing is ignored and policies put in place that stoke housing demand in an over-inflated market. Bastow et al offer useful advice here in their chapter on engagement with business (chapter 5). They highlight that social science does not ordinarily produce marketable Intellectual Property. However, interviewees from the private sector wanted engagement with social scientists for the questions only social scientists could answer. In the current UK context this suggests a role for housing studies researchers to work with private property developers to better understand their market context and barriers to delivering new housing; such as negotiating with anti-housing “NIMBY” pressure groups; or working in partnership with local authorities, communities and land-owners to bring forward sites for development.

To conclude, this review was written in the aftermath of the UK Comprehensive Spending Review and a government review into research funding at UK universities. Many naysayers feared that these developments would result in substantial reductions to research funding, and the prioritisation of STEM research. The outcome of these policy changes in the UK has, to date, not been this dire. As Bastow et al make explicit in their conclusion, and what Collini in his aversion to the application of research seems to discount, is that many of the major global challenges we face need the insights of the social sciences and humanities – STEM cannot do it alone. In this context, Bastow et al’s approach of accepting a framing of “impact” and demonstrating how we deliver it, is probably the most appropriate. Our response as housing researchers, and social scientists, must first and foremost be to continue to undertake excellent research. Second, we must endeavour to find better ways to communicate our findings and produce greater social impact, but collectively beating ourselves up because we are not all always able to write the perfect policy briefing at the perfect policy window is unlikely to pay dividends.

Dr Peter Matthews
School of Social Sciences, Stirling University

Nutley, S. M., I. Walter and H. T. O. Davies (2007). Using Evidence: How research can inform public services. Bristol, Policy Press.

Pain, R., M. Kesby and K. Askins (2011). "Geographies of impact: power, participation and potential." Area 43(2): 183-188.

Savage, M. (2010). Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940: the Politics of Method. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Savage, M. and R. Burrows (2007). "The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology." Sociology 41(5): 885-899.

Slater, T. (2012). "Impacted geographers: a response to Pain, Kesby and Askins." Area 44(1): 117-119.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Universalism or targeted services?

I was at a couple of really interesting seminars today in my Faculty (of Social Sciences). The morning one was by Naomi Eisenstadt, Anti-Poverty Adviser to the Scottish Government, with a very impressive CV of involvement in a number of UK policy initiatives. At lunchtime I listened to Prof Anna Vignole discuss her research on graduate outcomes. Both have had widespread news coverage, for very different reasons (see here and here). What linked them both was an interest in how inequalities are replicated and what we can do about them.

I want to particularly focus on Ms Eisenstadt’s talk because of the questions she raised, and has raised to the Scottish Government, regarding universalism vs. targeting of services. On the Left, we’re supposed to hate targeted services for a number of reasons. As my mum was taught on her Social Administration degree in the 1960s, services for the poor are poor services; middle class service-users drive up the general quality of services.* Also, targeted services tend to be stigmatising, such as being “on benefits”.

However, Ms Eisenstadt argued that, given the specific challenges many people face, we do need targeted services. She used the example of Sure Start, which she was heavily involved in. One of the critiques of Sure Start was it was used by middle-class parents, so it failed as it was not targeted enough. Ms Eisenstadt turned this on its head by pointing out its massive success was a policy targeted at the poorest was so successful it attracted the richest.

In my own field, this is sort of how I’d envisage a successful neighbourhoods policy (as I argue in a roundabout way in this article). We would still have concentrations of social housing in specific neighbourhoods, but all the ancillary services would be so good and so tailored that people either wouldn’t think the neighbourhoods were any different, or would actually aspire to live in them.

The trouble is with this, and a point Ms Eisenstadt made very well, is that the sort of progressive expenditure needed to deliver this change is politically very difficult to achieve (as she found in her dealings with the Scottish Government). It’s far easier for politicians to blame poor people and seek behavioural solutions. In the case of neighbourhoods policy for me, it’s blaming poor people for being untidy, rather than actually providing a street-sweeping service that is adequate.

The other problem, that was equally well put, was that policies to change behaviour are very difficult to implement and expensive - it's very hard to tell someone to be a better parent. Policies to redistribute income work and are quite easy to do. I'd add that policies such as better street sweeping, or more teachers in schools and more spending per-pupil in deprived areas, is also a lot easier to do.

This fitted quite well into what Prof Vignoles was saying over lunchtime because of the universalism of higher education provision in Scotland. This is lauded as a great “progressive” policy in Scotland, even though the evidence is fairly consistent that Scotland is not doing as well in getting pupils from schools in deprived neighbourhoods into university, and that the policy disproportionately benefits the wealthier end of the middle classes.

The research raises further questions that need to be considered in Scottish policy debate. As the BBC fairly accurately summarised, the research shows that if you’ve done an arts degree your earning potential is low. If you’ve studied economics you’ll be minted. Higher education seems very bad at closing gaps between people however, so if you’re poor and do economics, you’ll become better-off, but not as well off as someone who was wealthy. In Scotland, if we want higher education to maximise economic growth, and individual outcomes, then we should probably spend a lot more SFC grant on economics and leave the arts to wrack and ruin. The trouble is, students really want to do arts subjects. So, if we did alter investment in subjects in this way, arts subjects could end up with ludicrously high entry requirements (high demand for places, few places to be had) and economics could end up welcoming all-comers for the opposite reason.

Both presentations left with a sense of our failure to discuss – or as academics to enable a discussion – as to what sort of outcomes we want our public services to deliver and how. We have our national outcomes in Scotland like “We have tackled the significant inequalities in Scottish society” but we’ve not said what a more equal society would look like, or more importantly the shape of public services to deliver that. 

* on this point,Ms Eisenstadt made a wonderfully well observed point that when people experiencing poverty get a good service that helps them, they are eternally grateful. The middle classes don't think twice about it as they feel entitled to good services.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Park Run and Common Pool Resources

As a tri-afflete I run. Or, I ran. I’ve currently got problems with my ITB at the moment, so I’m not running as much as I’d like to. Although from that Wikipedia article, I think I’ve worked out why (I’m a pigeon-toed cyclist). Anyway, among the running community in the UK the decision of the Stoke Gifford Parish Council to charge their local Park Run for use of a park has caused a bit of a furore – a petition has currently reached 20,000 signatures. From a governance perspective, I find this fascinating.

Let’s start up with what I don’t know about this particular case:
  •  It’s not clear from the reporting if there is an issue of conflict, with other users of the park regularly feeling they cannot use this particular park on a Saturday morning because it is over-run with runners (pun not intended).
  •  I don’t know the population of the village concerned, or whether the Park Run is a lot of incomers.
  •  I do not know if the Parish Council considered increasing their precept on the Council Tax to pay for further maintenance of the park concerned.

What I do know is this – it appears to be a classic case of the difficulty in managing a Common Pool Resource. In economics, a Common Pool Resource is one where you can’t easily stop people using it (it’s non-excludable) but where people using the resource deplete it until it cannot be used by anyone (it’s rivalrous). In this case the park is a Common Pool Resource because the Parish Council couldn't stop Park Run in the first place (it's non-excludable) and it create rivalry in two way: you can't easily share a path with hundreds of runners; and all those stomping feet will create wear-and-tear. This is different to an apple (a private good) which is excludable, no one else can eat it at the same time as you, and once you have eaten it, it has gone (it’s rivalrous); or street lighting (a public good) which is non-excludable (my A-Level economics teacher used to have a great skit on coin-operated street lights) and non-rivalrous, unless someone casts a particularly large shadow.

Neo-classical economics suggests that unless common pool resources are brought into the market (made excludable in some way), or are managed by bureaucracies, then the natural outcome will be the tragedy of the commons: every man (I use the pronoun purposefully) will use up the resource to their maximum extent which will mean it is eventually depleted for everyone. It sounds like this is what Stoke Gifford Parish Council believed was happening here. The Park Run was using the resource and it was being depleted to the detriment of everyone. Therefore a market solution was to make them pay.

The only woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for economics, the wonderful Elinor Ostrom, through actual empirical research, not fancy econometric modelling, basically said the neo-classical argument was rubbish. There were thousands of examples across the world where people had got together to manage common pool resources themselves. Close-knit webs of social ties meant that people trusted each other to use just enough of the resource. It also meant people were aware of the needs of others, so that if they over-used the resource then other people would suffer. Management of such resources can be co-produced by communities and government actors.

It sounds like the organisers of this Park Run wanted to get something like this going. The BBC reporting states:
“Geoff Keogh, a Parkrun organiser, told the meeting he did not believe the run had a significant impact on the park, but volunteers would be willing to undertake maintenance activities or litter picks "as a way of offsetting whatever the perceived costs might be to the council".”
The organisers wanted to give a bit, and ensure their event was still accessible, and regain the trust of the Parish Council. But the Parish Council view is that “it was "unfair" to expect non-running residents to pay for path upkeep”.

The fact that “fairness” has been thrown into the argument does suggest that a level of trust has broken down in this case. It also highlights that where there are difference in culture – in the case of my own research I’m interested in social class dynamics – getting collaborative management of common pool resources going can be very difficult. In this case, it would be really good if the District Council could come in and mediate, but I doubt now that they have the resources – as Helen Sullivan commented, such “Big Society” action to deliver collaborative management actually requires a “Big State”.  

Anyway, I don’t have any solutions for the residents of Little Stoke, or those runners. But it’s a fascinating case, and I hope someone is planning some doctoral research on it. What is more, as local authority budgets get cut more and more and basic maintenance becomes a luxury, I think we are going to see many more example of such battles of common pool resources. 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

I'm writing this while chasing the dragon

Someone close to me lost their job not too long ago. In fact they were sacked. The job involved early starts and late finishes; a lot of travel; the remuneration didn’t match the skills and requirements for the post. Ultimately all this got too much and led to mental health problems and the job ending. Given I’m an academic, you might be presuming this was another academic. In fact it wasn’t – it was someone in a fairly hum-drum job in a private sector engineering company.

I write this because us academics are at it again – apparently academia makes us heroin addicts. There are two points I want to make – first on academic exceptionalism; and secondly on the damage this discourse does.

The reason I recounted the story above is to demonstrate that the damage that work does is not unique to academia, as many seem to think it is. In a low-productivity, low-wage, economy like that of the UK or US, stress and long hours are the norm for most workers. And that stress is worse – it’s the grinding, drudgery stress that the work of Michael Marmot showed slowly kills you. As academics we are far more likely to experience the fight-or-flight stress that actually helps you do your job better.

So, this genre of complaining frustrates me because it makes academia seem exceptional and does not fully acknowledge we are in a much wider economy that needs much broader reform to make it a better place to work, for everyone.

It also frustrates me because of the patterns it recreates in our labour and the damage this does. When I was a doctoral researcher my supervisors made me take leave, made me work normal hours because that is the right way to work. I completed my thesis on time. Their advice is still important to me now as I work to ensure my weekends are free for me to do my own activities and that I can keep up to my six hours of fitness training a week.

Some of the doctoral researchers in my Faculty put a funny sign on the door of their office about stress. This depressed me greatly – they shouldn’t feel stressed at this stage. Yet it seems normal for doctoral students to expect to work weekends, to burst into tears in the office, to take on far too much because that is what they think is expected of them. While we complain about the working practices of the academy, we recreate them in our apprentices and don’t teach them better coping strategies or support them in working with, and against, the institution to excel.

So, in this basic way this “openness” to the stresses of the job causes more damage – it creates patterns people then think they are expected to recreate. But it also prevents a lot of positive action. One thing I find interesting is the way “academia” or “the university” is nominalised within this discourse – it gains agency which it simply does not have: “academia” creates metrics we have to meet; “the university” is now an audit regime controlling our lives. No – a university, one institution, the one you work for, in your labour relations, creates these things. And that, for me, should be our focus for action.  

Thinking in this way – bottom-up – produces a space for change for organised labour, and also institutional processes, such as Athena SWAN. Universities, as employees, have specific statutory duties, primarily around health and safety. If your work is making you mentally unwell, the university has a duty of care to support you. If it does not do this, it is breaking the law and can be sued – this is the everyday casework of our union officers. We also need to explicitly recognise that we work in large, multi-million pound institutions that employ hundreds or thousands of staff. Thus, if something does not get done because we did not have time to do it, it is not our fault. It is, ultimately, the Vice-Chancellor’s fault. In reality it is the fault of the institution. The whole point of large bureaucracies is they should be structured so that if something goes wrong, there’s another bit of the bureaucracy ready to take over. We need to stop feeling guilty and damaging our mental health. It is not our fault.

As managers (I’m now taking line management roles) we also need to manage better – recognise that our staff have families and other pressures and give them the slack to do what they want to do. We need to recognise the excellence of our staff and stop talking about how “we all cope in this situation” and say “we all work really hard, perform excellently, and look at all the brilliant stuff we manage to do”. We also need to recognise the expertise and skill of all our staff, get away from the stupid division between “admin” and “academia”, and recognise the professional skills to support us in excelling at our academic roles.

After, yet another, horribly negative “anonymous academic” piece in the Guardian, I emailed them and asked if they would like a positive one. After an email was exchanged I never heard anything again. It seems we want to share the stories of the damage the bogeyman of “academia” does, but we don’t want to share the ways to cope, the ways to make things better. If you share the positive stories, you’re pilloried for being a slave to the neoliberal university, or for not fully recognising your privilege. But many of us are not superstars, we’re just trying to create better ways of working in better institutions.
edit/ After 48 hours this post has had over 900 hits which has been quite a surprise. So I feel I should embellish it with this, which was made for me by Pat Lockley as part of our banter on teh Twitterz.